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The University Crisis Provides a Historic Opportunity

The Danger When My Comfort Zones and Fears Become My God

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    4335 views
  • May 9, 2024
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  • 1 Iyyar 5784
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Class Summary:

When God Becomes an Excuse for Fear: The Danger of Confusing Transcendence with Habit

In honor of our dear cousins, Yaakov and Elisheva Kirschenbaum (Washington Heights, NY). By David and Eda Schottenstein

Dedicated by Menachem and Batya Abrams in honor of their children Mazal Yishau, Ayala, Rafael Tzemach, and David Gavriel

Every evening, I turn my worries over to God. He's going to be up all night anyway. -- Mary C. Crowley 

God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages. -- Jacques Deval 

The University Protests

Our universities have been a source of longing for countless American Jewish families. Jewish immigrant parents labored tirelessly to send their children to higher education institutions, where they would become integrated into the larger society and build successful futures.

The chaos we are observing in the universities today, with protesters, including many Jews, calling for the death of their own people, the destruction of their homeland, and the country that has given them so much freedom, is horrific and tragic beyond words.

Still, like every crisis, it contains a historic opportunity for rebirth.

The present moral confusion of so many students and their academic leaders will teach a whole generation how twisted the human mind can become when divorced from truth; how when we strip G-d from all reality and are left to figure things out with our brilliance alone, Hitler, Stalin, and Bin Laden can become tzaddikim. “The genesis of all wisdom is the awe of G-d,” we read in the Psalms (Ch. 111). Without respect for G-d, without the recognition that there is something called Reality, there is a truth in the universe, enlightened academics can align themselves with murderers, rapists, and genocidal terrorists.

Just as Allah, without any logic and reason, can produce Islamist monsters, so too logic without G-d, without respect for absolute truth, produce liberal monsters, calling for the death and rape of 6 million Jews. The protesters at the universities have turned their views and perspectives into a god, and are stuck in a new form of idol worship, not open to challenging themselves in any real way. This dogma creates the death of ideas and all emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.

This is our historic opportunity. We can, at last, say goodbye to the idol we created entitled "higher secular education." It is corrupt, sinister, and a breeding ground for Nazi supporters. We can educate a new generation of Jews with the timeless, eternal values of Torah and Mitzvos, which teach us sanity, decency, honesty, and the sanctity of life. This will allow all of our children to distinguish between good and evil, death and life, and truly celebrate the sanctity of life.

Metal Gods? 

“Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal [1],” the Torah instructs us in the portion of Kedoshim. 

How could any intelligent person believe a piece of metal is a god? We could perhaps appreciate how ancient pagan societies attributed divine qualities to powerful, transcendent forces of nature, like the Zodiac signs, the sun, the moon, the galaxies, the wind, fire, water, etc. But why would a thoughtful human believe god could be fashioned out of cast metal?  

Even if we can explain how such an idea could have been entertained seriously in the ancient, pagan world, how does this commandment in Torah—a timeless blueprint for human life—apply to our lives today?  

I once encountered a beautiful interpretation of these words [2]. This biblical verse—"Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal"—tells us not to construct a god of a lifestyle and a weltanschauung that has become like “cast metal;” one that is cast and solidified in a fixed mold. 

A natural human tendency is to worship what we have become comfortable with. We worship our habits, patterns, attitudes, routines, and inclinations because we have accustomed ourselves to them, and they are now part of our lives. We worship the icons, culture, perspective, and emotions we have been raised with; we surrender to what has become the norm in our communities, schools, and homes. People love that which does not surprise them; we want to enjoy a god that suits our philosophical and emotional paradigms and comfort zones. We tend to embrace a fixed and molten god. 

This is true for religious and secular people, for believers and self-proclaimed atheists or agnostics. “Don’t rock my neural pathways" is the call of our psyche. “I already have an established god; do not threaten it… I have my own patterns of thought and life systems, which I am used to. Do not challenge it. If you do, I will have no choice but to dismiss you as a heretic or a boor. "

Sometimes, a religious person invests his or her entire life into constructing a particular image of G-d, of truth, of ultimate reality. To let go of that is simply too painful.  To even entertain the idea that my entire religion may be man-made in so many ways is profoundly challenging.  

If you speak to so many people today who call themselves secular, scientific, free from dogma and indoctrination, you can notice how they too often create secular gods, which one may never challenge or question. It is appalling how, in the name of openness and tolerance, people can become so vengeful and supportive of pure evil.

Raw Truth 

Comes the Torah and declares: Do not turn your pre-established mold into your G-d. Do not turn your habits, natural patterns of thought, fears, inclinations, or addictions into a deity. Allow yourself to search for the truth. The real truth—naked, raw, and authentic, even if painful. Life is about challenge, not conformity. Allow your soul to be enchanted by mystery.

Never say, “This is the way I am; this is how I do things; I cannot change.” Never think, “This is the worldview I am comfortable with; any other way must be wrong.” Rather, muster the courage to challenge every instinct, temptation, and convention; question every dogma, including dogmas that speak in the name of open-mindedness and are embraced simply because you fall back on that which you have been taught again and again. Let your life not become enslaved to a particular pattern just because it has been that way for many years or decades.

G-d, the real G-d, is not defined by any conventions; let your soul, too, not be confined by any external conventions. Experience the freedom of your Creator. 

Often, we fall prey to a certain image of what our lives are supposed to look like; what our marriages or children are supposed to look like; what our mission is supposed to look like. But this is another way of fashioning our god with the tools of our understanding. There comes a point I need to open myself up to the possibility that perhaps my purpose in life is completely different than what I imagined; I need to stop asking what I want from G-d and start asking what G-d wants from me. 

It is a serious paradigm shift. But it sets you free. 

Judaism never articulated who G-d is and what G-d looks like. It taught us what G-d does NOT look like: G-d ought never to be defined by any image we attribute to Him, hewn by the instruments of our conscious or subconscious needs, fears, and aspirations. In Jewish philosophy, never mind in Kabbalah and Chassidic thought, we never speak of what G-d is; only of what He is not: G-d is not an extension of my being or imagination[3]. 

The common Yiddish term for G-d used by some of the greatest Jewish mystics, thinkers, and holy men and women is “Oybershter,” which means “higher.” Not Creator, not Master, not All-Powerful, but “Higher.” What this term represents is this idea: I do not know what He is; all I know is that whatever my definition of truth and reality, whatever my definition for G-d -- He is “higher” than that. All I know is that I do not know[4]. 

To be open to the G-d of the Torah means to be open to never-ending mystery, infinite grandeur, limitless sublimity, and possibility; it is the profound readiness at every moment of life to open ourselves to transcendence. And what was transcendent yesterday -- can become a form of exile today. Transcendence itself must also be transcendent, for it too can become a trap. 

And that which remains of your ambitions and desires after you have faced all of your fears and challenged your defenses is where your will meets G-d’s will[5]. At that point of complete humility and sincerity, you become truly one with yourself, one with the inner core of reality.  

In the words of the Zohar[6], “No thought, no idea, can grasp Him; yet He can be grasped with the pure desire of the heart.” 

_______________

[1] Leviticus 19:4.
[2] Mei Hasheluach by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, Parshas Kedoshim, p. 118. The author was a brilliant and creative 19th-century Chassidic thinker and master, and is known as the Rebbe of Ishbitz. He passed away in 1854.
[3] This is a common theme in the writings of Maimonidies in his “Guide to the Perplexed.” See at length Likkutei Torah Parshas Pekudei and references noted there.
[4] I heard this insight from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sichas Shabbas Parshas Toldos 5751 (1991).
[5] See at length Mei Hasheluach ibid.
[6] See Zohar Vol. 3 p. 289b. Hemshech 5666 (by the Rebbe Rashab, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch) p. 57.

Please leave your comment below!

  • B

    benjamin -2 years ago

    Does this correlate to the color of Tzitzit  argument from Korach? 🕊

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    • B

      benjamin -2 years ago

      Really grateful 4 this article Rabbi🕊

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  • Anonymous -2 years ago

    Dear Rabbi YY,
    The ancient statues of wood, stone, or metal were not intended to be worshipped in and of themselves. Those who made them did not believe that the statue of wood or stone or metal WAS a deity. 
    We treasure photos of our children or other loved ones, but don't imagine that the photo IS the person. We simply enjoy seeing the photo. It REMINDS us of the actual person.
    Ancient pagans, and modern Catholics, use images to help them visualize or imagine the entities whom they worship. They do not think the image which they can hold, nor the huge images they cannot hold, ARE  the entities they worship.They simply use the images to REMIND them of the saint or deity. It helps them to focus. 
    Of course, the "gods" symbolized by their images were not gods at all. They worshipped the souls of various objects. The "sun god" was the soul of he sun. It's OK to know the sun has a soul. The soul of the sun is one of Gd;'s servants. Similarly the souls of the moon, planets, and stars are not gods but merely more of Gd's servants.I suppose that trees, rivers, and mountains have souls as well. But only the HUMAN soul --the Neshamah--is truly Divine.Other entities have, what?  a Nefesh? or some other lesser soul? Certainly not a Neshamah or other higher soul. But even if these entities were really gods, it would still not be OK to make images of them.Why not? Why do we not make an image of Gd? Because Gd is Infinite. No image is worthy of Him..
    Only Jews and Muslims are able to focus on the Deity WITHOUT the use of the image. I don't know how Muslims do it.But I know how WE do it. We use the sacred Torah scroll, or an image of the Kotel, to direct our thoughts to the Divine. So even we Jews, who faithfully avoid IMAGES, still use something to focus our attention and devotion on Gd.Not necessarily a object. We can use the performance of a mitzvah.
    In ancient times, the Temple did this for us. Solomon said to FACE TOWARD the Temple and Gd would hear our prayers.
    When the Temple was destroyed, we had to find another way to center our thoughts, and that other way is the Mitzvos. Every time we do a mitzvah, we feel our connection to HaShem. That's the joy of the mitzvah--it gives us that link. That's why we say, "I had a chance t do a mitzvah." We regard the doing of a mitzvah as a special treat, a pleasure, because we can feel; the link to HaShem.Ancient idolators used images to get that feeling. They were not so stupid as to imagine the image WAS the object of their devotion. Our prophets made fun of them, claiming that they were worshipping the mere statue. They did this to mock idolatry. But they knew those who used idols were not necessarily worshipping the statue.(I suppose some of them were stupid enough to believe that each such image was itself a god. But the images originated as a focal point.) They merely needed something to provide that feeling of a link with their deity.  
    They needed a way to focus. 
    We found other ways to focus. The Temple. The Torah scroll. The Mitzvos. Or even an image of the Kotel. Or a parchment with the Shma on it. Some sort of Mizrach so we can feel we are facing the Temple Mount. 
    You have written a very nice sermon based on the analogy of stiff metal. 
    But we need to acknowledge the fact that the idolators were worshipping the IDEA of their deities, not the wood or stone or metal image. 
    There are people today who claim to find an image of Gd in a photo of the sky or even an image on a piece of toast. THOSE ones are stupid. But the original purpose of images was not stupidity. 
    The question is, WHY did Gd forbid us to make images of HIM?Probably because any image is limited, and Gd is INFINITE. UNLIMITED. AYN SOF. 
    The ancient gods of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome were all limited. A deity for the sun or the moon or for a river. These objects have souls, but their souls are less than our souls, not more. Their vision was deeply limited, but not so limited as to believe that a statue, which cannot even move, was a deity. It only SYMBOLIZED their deity. I acknowledge that their gods were not even gods. They worshipped false gods.But the official belief was not that they should worship the images. Their main error was that they worshipped false gods.But even using images as a focus was an error in itself, because an image if FINITE, so it emphasized that they worshipped FINITE "gods."
    We too need symbols of our true infinite Deity, and, for that, every picture or image is unworthy. .Only the Temple or the Torah Scroll or the doing of a mitzvah is worthy of serving as such a symbol.  

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  • D

    Dina -2 years ago

    Really beautiful concept! I find this so inspiring 

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  • L

    Leah -2 years ago

    This is beautiful

    I love this !

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  • D

    David -6 years ago

    I would have thought that the Torah and divrei chazal are full of positive descriptions of what HASHEM is like -- and it was the Rambam, via Greek philosophy, etc that introduced  apophatic theology to Judaism.

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    • D

      Danny -2 years ago

      Rambam May have employed aspects of Greek philosophy 

      as chazal teach there is chochma begoyim and pure philosophy that does not contractor Hashems Torah would fit that category 

      but the idea that Essentially God has no image is the classic biblical concept 

      Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Parshas Kedoshim

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • May 9, 2024
  • |
  • 1 Iyyar 5784
  • |
  • 4335 views
  • Comment

In honor of our dear cousins, Yaakov and Elisheva Kirschenbaum (Washington Heights, NY). By David and Eda Schottenstein

Dedicated by Menachem and Batya Abrams in honor of their children Mazal Yishau, Ayala, Rafael Tzemach, and David Gavriel

Class Summary:

When God Becomes an Excuse for Fear: The Danger of Confusing Transcendence with Habit

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